Amid all the howling about terror, treason and the ABC, Australians seemingly have lost the ability to stop, listen and think. Everyone is in such a hurry to outdo the next person in vilifying and repudiating the ‘other’, whether it is a Muslim Australian, a political opponent or a commercial rival. I can’t remember when the fabric of public debate has been so tattered by prejudice, ignorance and a determined refusal to listen to the other point of view.
I am not a regular watcher of ABC-TV’s Q&A; I don’t like the format, and I feel sometimes it has been part of the problem in the way issues are debated and analyzed in this country. So this is not a defence of a particular program or a particular voice on that program. What I want to say, however, is that if we prefer silence to allowing the expression of opinions that annoy or exasperate us therein lies a terrible danger. Only totalitarian states prefer the elevator music of perfect agreement.
Let me just say this about the individual concerned. Critics constantly remind us that he is a convicted criminal, as though any citizen who has been punished under the law is no longer entitled to a voice. This idea should be anathema in a democracy, and yet it plays straight into the government’s campaign to curtail the citizenship rights of a specific group of people through the use of powers that emanate from outside the judicial progress.
The ABC’s managing director Mark Scott made an important point this week when he emphasized the distinction between a public broadcaster and a state broadcaster. The ABC was part of Team Australia, he said––repudiating Tony Abbott’s slur––because it played the necessary role in a democracy of providing a forum for debate free of political interference.
As further evidence that people don’t listen, a member of the Greens then criticized Scott for allegedly sacrificing truth to patriotism. He had missed the point completely: the ABC should not, and does not, stand outside Australian society; its role is to strengthen the social fabric by giving expression to all its parts.
And then there’s the debate over how the families of dead ISIL fighters from Australia should be treated.
I was astonished to hear Labor’s Bill Shorten join the ugly chorus of ‘I wouldn’t let my kids near him’ in reference to the seven-year-old boy coaxed by his father into posing for a photograph with a severed head in Syria. The boy was seven, Bill. Talkback radio has been full of voices repeating the same mantra: shun him; we don’t want them back; let them fetch for themselves. Unclean, unclean!
Once upon a time Australia used to be referred to as a Christian country. Even today, beneath the intolerance for the Muslim veil and beard is an affirmation of ‘Christian’ superiority. What became of the central Christian principle of forgiveness? What became of the core Australian principle of fairness? Should we not be reaching out to those Australians, wherever they are, whose lives have been marred by the actions of others, fanatical fathers and possibly mothers?
Tony Abbott says they will be treated just the same as the families of other criminals. Of course, none of these ISIL fighters has been convicted of anything in a court of law––though perhaps that’s too nice a point during this time of bludgeoning debate. In any case, as I have already pointed out, being a convicted felon (and having served your time), according to some people, is now sufficient reason for the ABC to need to exclude your voice from the airwaves. Perhaps all ex-cons should be stripped of their citizenship? What are the limits of the politics of vilification?
Perhaps you heard in the news this week that the city of Kobane, near the Syrian border with Turkey, was cleared of ISIL by Kurdish militias after months of fighting. Western news media entering the city found a scene of total destruction: not a building intact, a vast grey pile of rubble. Within a day, ISIL elements were back in the city on a savage rampage against the civilian remnants.
In this sort of contest, there is no ‘to the victor, the spoils’; total warfare means total destruction. For liberal societies such as ours, the challenge we face is not to be the first to don fatigues and lay waste (rhetorically or otherwise) to any and every perceived opponent, before he ‘gets’ us. The challenge is to preserve the reasons for our opposing violence, intolerance and oppression, and live out those reasons every day in the way be conduct our civil society.
We must not tear down the institutions and the laws that protect us from within, as we attempt to mount a defence against perceived and real threats from without. Pause, listen and think.
Walter Hamilton reported for ABC for more than 30 years.